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Hosts and guests: We and the Other

Writer Alejandra Oliva meditates on preparing feasts for friends — and strangers.

I love cooking for people. I make dinner almost every night — at this point, I know my husband’s tastes almost as well as my own, skipping the olives on his dish and doubling them up on mine, keeping eggplant and soft cheeses as an occasional treat for me but not relying on them as staples, sweating my way through dishes a hair spicier than I’d prefer just to see him grin.

I don’t cook only for my husband, though. The best way I know to officially cement a friendship is to have someone over, sit them down at my table, and feed them something I have made with my own hands. It’s not just about the food: I’ll go through and clean my house, set the table, light some candles I keep on the sideboard, think through not simply a dish but a menu that’s adapted not only to my tastes or to my husband’s, but to theirs as well.

I love it because I get to show off a little, of course: here is a version of me that keeps a neat house, that cooks a dinner from scratch, that places a sprig of cilantro or a dusting of chocolate powder just so, that has clean tablecloths, for goodness’ sake. I get to present myself with my best foot forward and care for my friends and loved ones in their entirety. When I cook for someone, it’s a matter of nourishing their bodies as well as providing a little something for the soul, too: spirit and flesh, and a nod toward the beauty that sustains them both. Cooking for others, in as much as it is about presenting myself, is also about presenting myself to others, of meeting their hunger – and its limits – where it lies.

The best way I know to officially cement a friendship is to have someone over, sit them down at my table, and feed them something I have made with my own hands.

Eating, on a purely biological level, can be a risky proposition. In bringing something into my body, hoping it will sustain me, I also open myself up to the possibility that it might harm me. Feeding someone else puts that responsibility on my shoulders, and preparing a meal for someone means giving them space to be vulnerable to me. It’s not the kind of vulnerability we tend to put a lot of weight on in the modern age – huge parts of the alimentary chain happen far outside our field of vision or control – but it is a vulnerability that is there nonetheless.

This vulnerability is entangled not only in our bodies and the act of consumption but in the social relationships that form around the meal. The dinner table is one of the first places where we learn what it means to be in community: we share a table, serving platters and the food on them. The meal we are eating was either prepared to match our tastes, preferences and allergies, or it’s something we must negotiate with our host in the moment of filling our plates. We serve our portions with an eye to everyone else around the table: “Have you gotten enough of these potatoes, or can I finish them off?” “Do you need me to pass you the green beans?” It’s a delicate negotiation that can bring in differences in culture and race and age and gender, a negotiation that forces us, even at a bountifully spread table, to contend with finite resources and how to allocate them. Just as in preparing a meal for them, eating one alongside people brings me into close contact with other people, their needs and desires, and brings me into collaboration to meet them, and my own.

In her recent book, Small Fires: An Epic in the Kitchen, Rebecca May Johnson writes dazzlingly about this interplay of desire and need, restriction and plenty, from the point of view of a home cook like me, who is preparing a meal … well, preparing a meal for you. The “you” she writes about is at once a specific “you” – there are times we learn little snatches of biography or preference, contours of singularity – and a general you, which she describes with words borrowed from poet Anne Boyer: “That You which is every beloved, which constitutes itself across difference and species and the whole of life. You is eros and caritas all mixed up in a word. It is also the stranger who any of us might be.”

Johnson continues: “You are the stranger at my door at my table who I will cook for and the stranger whose refusals and pleasures will teach me how to eat and how to cook again, how to love again …”

And suddenly we are both, yes, very concretely talking about food, and eating, and sharing a table, but we’re also suddenly talking about a field that is much bigger than a starched tablecloth or a rumpled picnic blanket. We’re talking about the Stranger at the Door, the philosophical abstraction and concrete reality also known as the other, the not-self, the person who appears around our campfire in need of something that we may not have plenty of. For Johnson, those negotiations take on edges of the political, of the erotic. As a home cook in a household where the larder is full, the question is less about need and more about pleasure. This is, admittedly, also the kind of negotiation that happens in my home, around my table, but I’ve been party to a different kind of negotiation lately, to a different understanding of what the Other might be.

The dinner table is one of the first places where we learn what it means to be in community: we share a table, serving platters and the food on them.

In the moments between meals, I am an immigration activist and scholar, and I spend a great deal of time thinking about You. Particularly about what We (even if, as Boyer also says, that “we is a shaky and nascent and sometimes wavering collectivity”) owe to You, in my case, specifically defined as the migrants from around the world who arrive at our southern border seeking refuge, or better jobs, or a different way of living that’s free of fear. Our politicians often like to distinguish between economic and humanitarian migration both in their policies and their rhetoric, but I find that there’s less space between those definitions than this may allow. Hunger is not on a different continuum than violence, and the two often share both causes and consequences.

Let’s talk about this “we” for a moment. We, as Americans, sit at that proverbial table of plenty, but it often feels as if someone has come before us and picked all the shrimp out of the fried rice and pulled the filling out of the dumplings, leaving us with subsistence fare coated in rich sauces. Our healthcare is dependent on our employment, wages have not kept pace with inflation while housing costs have far outstripped it, civil and human rights are being categorically stripped away, and our government is using taxpayer money to fund a genocide halfway across the world. I likely don’t have to explain this to You, the reader, because you’re here, at this table, right alongside me, trying to cobble together a meal, reading magazines, trying to take enough for ourselves and leave enough for others. None of us are strangers to this negotiation of survival, but every once in a while, circumstances arise to make parts of that negotiation more fraught, more challenging.

I live in Chicago, and for the last year and a half, I’ve been witness to my city attempting to make sense of the tens of thousands of new arrivals, bused in from the U.S.-Mexico border by Texas governor Greg Abbott. Chicago is far from the only city where this is happening, but it feels instructive as an example because instead of looking at the massive geography and economy of a whole country, you instead can shrink down these questions to matters of familiar cities and neighborhoods and streets.

I’ll start at the street level: walking around Chicago now feels different than it did a year ago. I live in a neighborhood on the far northwest side, fairly isolated from most public transit, and nevertheless, outside the grocery store where I occasionally shop, there’s usually two mothers and their children asking for food and help finding work, the Home Depot down the street has an active population of day laborers – boys and men from their teens to their 40s or 50s – who are ready to chat with anyone who looks like they might need help with their new supplies. Walking around in the Loop, downtown, you’ll pass a half-dozen families with babies bundled up against the cold, asking for cash and food to make it to another day. My city is full of homeless, hungry children.

And the city, as a whole, is trying. On the government side, there are shelters – an expansion of our existing system for the houseless people that have been living in the city for a long time – and converted schools and YMCAs and Kmarts and police stations to house people. Citizens themselves have also sprung into action. It’s not only the hundreds of immigration and grassroots and mutual aid organizations that already existed in the city, but new organizations working to feed and clothe and take care of the migrants at a hyper-local level, block by block, shelter by shelter. Even so: there are tent cities accompanied by “warming buses” for people to spend 20 minutes in something other than bone-crushing cold, the city decided to go with a military contractor with a history of mismanagement to organize additional bed spaces, there is talk of communicable diseases circulating around the shelters and facilities where people are living. And again and most visibly, there are hungry children and their mothers and fathers asking for food throughout the city. Part of the problem is not just local – federal rules prohibit asylum seekers from getting job permits until nearly six months after filing an application, a process that in itself can take months – leaving most people unable to work legitimate jobs or care for themselves and their families for far longer than the 60 days of shelter that the city promises.

Hunger is not on a different continuum than violence, and the two often share both causes and consequences.

And yet, even this meager help has been met with understandable resentment from certain quarters of the city. Early on, when the city was looking for adequate buildings in which to house people, they zeroed in on closed schools in predominantly Black, largely underfunded neighborhoods in the city’s South Side. Wait, said the neighborhood: there wasn’t enough support or funding to keep that school open, to keep our children in classrooms that were not overcrowded, to provide a center of gravity in our neighborhood around which we could congregate, but suddenly there’s funding to house relative newcomers? Hold on, they said. We have had to work to shelter and care for our own unhoused neighbors, asking for help from the city that never came, and now that someone new is arriving in town, suddenly the city is answering the call? These fears and resentments and anger were understandable, even if the racialized, xenophobic expressions some of them took were not. They had been eating scraps for years, told that there was all there was to be had, and suddenly saw new courses sweeping out of the kitchen to be placed in front of people who had just arrived.

This all leads back into the question of who is included in the “You” that we set a table for, who the “We” is that sets it. Who has resources, who doesn’t, how is that decided? How was it decided that refugees from the war in Ukraine would receive fast-track immigration processes, while people from the Americas who had arrived seeking similar protection were shunted into a system known for its slow inefficiencies? How are we meant to welcome people onto a land when our authority to do so comes after the displacement and genocide of its original inhabitants — are we to set a table in a stolen house? Which of us are expected to share resources, and which of us are exempted from that expectation? Are they the same people who feel that they’re being made to share?

To bring it back to the kitchen table: are the dinners I serve really made with my own hands, or do I receive ingredients picked and packed and butchered and trimmed from the hands of dozens of strangers, most of them inadequately paid, unprotected by government policies, some of them even undocumented children? How can I stomach this food if that is true? Can I welcome someone to sit at my table under these conditions? These are complex questions, and their answers cannot be found in today’s political discourse, but in texts far older than this.

Photo by Kelsey Chance on Unsplash

In cultures that live in inhospitable lands  – whether the desert-dwellers of today’s Sahara or the ancient Greeks – the art of welcoming the stranger has been elevated to a moral imperative. When the thing that lies outside the warming glow of your hearth-fire is death and hunger, you open your doors, water down the stew a bit, or bulk it up with rice. The Bible fairly rings with a version of welcoming the stranger that is entangled with ideas of love, and care, and compassion, with Christ and angels in the guise of those who need shelter or food. Our responsibilities to ourselves, to our communities, have their foundations in something other than circling the wagons. We owe each other the means for survival, the fat of the land, not because the other might be divine, but because we all are. When the land is inhospitable, we must be the opposite.

In many ways, we are living in an inhospitable land. Resources feel scarce and precarious, the bits of solidity we are able to carve out for ourselves feel hard-won and ephemeral, if we really stop to think about them. And yet, I can create a feast, set a table for many, make meals to express my love for people in my life. That ability comes, in turn, with an obligation. I have the responsibility to figure out how to extend my table, to welcome other people to sit around it; not just to share of what I have, but to figure out the ways in which their needs, hungers and desires are different from my own, and find ways to sit with them at a table, anyways. Let me, like Johnson says, learn how to have pleasure in cooking and eating again, learn how to love from this, to move away from my own tired hungers to filling someone else’s empty belly.